Hot on the heels of Christmas and still buzzing with the collective energy the season exudes, Nathan and I jumped in the car and headed off for a 6 day silent meditation retreat, finishing on New Years day. In the rush to pick up a fellow meditator on time we had a little verbal tussle. I pointed out that we were a bit stressed and annoyed with each other on our way to a mindfulness retreat. It seemed imperative that we hurry up so we could get somewhere to calm the hell down! The irony was not lost on us. Clearly we needed the retreat.
I’m not sure whether this was my 4th or 5th silent New Year’s retreat in a row but somewhere along the line it struck me. I really couldn’t imagine having a better time anywhere else. It is a gentle, relaxed secular retreat which provides me with a sense of wellness for my body, mind and spirit. There is no obligation to do all 4 of the daily meditation sittings, or the daily yoga. Some people sleep for the first day. My husband is not much for meditation but after witnessing the changes in me, last year he decided to come along and see for himself. He is now also of the opinion that there isn’t a better New Year’s to be had so this year he was first to book. And to answer the most common question we get – no, we do not speak to each other on retreat. I highly recommend it.
Despite the challenges a silent retreat brings I walk away feeling so much better and the sense of wellness lasts well beyond the retreat. It’s not easy as you have to sit with your own stuff to get to the goodness. It is my heartfelt experience, in both my work and on the cushion, that underneath all our dramas, pain and struggle is a purity and clarity that can change everything. In the spirit of that, it seems crass to categorize this New Year as the best I have experienced, yet off the cushion it is the only way I can describe something not easily captured with words. I’ll get to that soon. For now I wanted to share a little about why I go on retreat as it often fascinates people.
The end of one year and the beginning of the next seems to be the perfect time to truly stop, rest and restore. Most of us are shattered by the end of each crazy year. Ultimately there is nothing more restorative than stillness. Silence allows me to get to that place. It is a soothing balm for the stresses and busy-ness of everyday life. Many people are horrified by the thought of being silent for 6 days (initially my husband included) but it has become my idea of bliss. I understand that just like a snow globe that has been continually shaken, I need to just set myself down and let my mind settle. It allows me to access the clarity underneath all the crap that usually runs in my head.
I love people, and love a deep and meaningful chat but not having to be anything for anybody is a beautiful gift. So much of ordinary life is dictated by interactions with others and the social norms that come with that, but on retreat there is no expectation. On a silent meditation retreat it is perfectly acceptable to walk past someone and not even acknowledge their presence – even someone you know well. It’s also equally acceptable to smile broadly at someone when you are feeling open to connection. The whole point is to stay present with yourself and just be in accordance with that. You do not have to be anything for anyone. There is a schedule and you just follow it and someone even feeds you amazingly delicious and nutritious food. You sleep, eat, sit, soften and still
Of course the mind is a thinking machine so we watch whatever arises and let it pass without getting on the thought train. Watching yourself and your mind’s stories is an interesting process. I remember on my first silent retreat more than a decade ago I felt compelled to communicate non-verbally with everyone I came across. Smiling, holding doors, generally trying to be helpful and connect. It was the civilised thing to do. To ignore someone felt really rude – and what if they thought badly of me?!
Over the years my view has changed. I am not responsible for how anyone else feels and they are not responsible for how I feel, so my interaction with them isn’t really as important as I once would have thought. There are times when I am feeling open and can allow my energy to reach for connection while at other times I need to be closed to others so I can be contained within myself. I also understand that the same process is happening for others so if they don’t interact with me, it doesn’t say anything about me as a person, or them for that matter. What a relief! It’s also pretty cool after the retreat as you don’t project so much onto others about how they might be thinking and feeling, particularly about you.
On the cushion, watching what happens inside my mind when my only job is to breathe and just be in the present is fascinating. On retreat it is common for my mind to initially sigh in relief and slow down…for a little while. That’s the first day or so, but from there it gets really interesting. There comes a point where my mind starts dredging up all sorts of things that it thinks are more important than settling and being present. It fixates on an aching shoulder, ruminates on past hurts or tries to solve future problems.
My mind weaves all sorts of stories and it becomes entirely obvious that it is all made up, as nothing is actually happening! I am sitting in stillness (or trying to). Literally nothing is happening – except in my own mind. And that is what the mind does in everyday life! We believe our thoughts are facts and act accordingly. Retreat reminds me that most of what I think on a daily basis is simply my projection rather than a cold, hard fact. And, if I just let go of all the thinking, breathe and be present there is so much more space and ease. The mind is a workaholic and really just needs a break at times.
Because the mind works so hard it is important to figure out how to get your mind to stop running its automatic programs. After trying to drop thinking with limited success I invited my mind to try something different. I realised that my mind thinks it is very important so I envisaged for it a beautiful throne befitting a king or queen. I told my mind that I appreciate all the hard work they do but it is now time to rest in the comfort and style they deserve (my mind is non-binary). I acknowledged their expertise and suggested that there may be something special and amazing to experience if they can only stop contributing and just watch for a while. No thinking, planning, or analysing – just watching.
This was highly effective and I can honestly say I experienced extended periods of peace and I have never felt so relaxed in my life. Writing this I am still amazed at the ease in my body. There is no amount of massage, spa baths or 12 year old whisky from Islay that can create that level of relaxation. When my mind stopped the endless chatter, I was able to dissolve into the perfection of that very moment. There was literally nothing else I needed. There was nothing that needed to be added and nothing that needed to be taken away. All was exactly as it was and my body just let go as the tension gently dissolved. In the pure stillness of the moment there was no tension, no pain, only flow. If I had to label it, I’d say that was my best New Year’s ever.